I became a full time employee of this company on Feb. 2, 2009. Five years ago. Half a decade. Kind of humbling to think of the passage of so much time. I’m not daft enough to think that’s important to anyone but me, yet it did cause me to pause, to reflect and to look through our archives to see when my byline first appeared in the Sun. It was in mid-July, eight-and-a-half years ago. It was my first Crime Log and the start of my relationships with Sun Region readers and Sun Region sources for news stories.

For me, it has usually been a pleasure—though I could happily live the rest of my life without covering a murder or a child abuse case—and it has always been educational. Being a professional journalist is a lot like going to college, except that you don’t pay a tuition. The drawback, of course, is something my teachers told me when I was a boy that I did not believe until I became an adult.

Homework is eternal.

But everlasting homework is a small price to pay to live and work in Seal Beach.

Thank you, Seal Beach.

I’m thankful to be a full-time, professional newspaper journalist. Not everyone who studied the craft in college got to enter the industry or was able to stay.

I’m thankful to be living and working in Seal Beach. I like it here. I like the people. I get to tell a wide variety of stories.

I’m thankful that Dennis Kaiser is my editor. We make a great team. Few editors are a better fit with either their community or newspaper, much less both.

I’m thankful I’ve now been cancer free 14 years.

Happy Thanksgiving, Seal Beach

I am working on a story about Seal Beach Leisure World that isn’t quite ready for press yet. While I was working on it, I got a call from Tim Bolton, president of the Golden Rain Foundation (the non-profit entity that runs the retirement community) and he answered those questions he felt he could answer. (Answering questions about a former employee is a tricky affair, so I can’t fault him for being cautious.)

I mention this, because Mr. Bolton apologized when he learned I did not receive a message that ought to have been sent.

That simple courtesy was a pleasant surprise. It isn’t unusual for people to simply ignore my calls and e-mails—sometimes because they are too busy and sometimes because they think if they ignore me the story won’t be covered by the press. That later reason for not responding does little good. If the press wants a story, the press will find that story and tell that story.

What makes Mr. Bolton’s apology for what was clearly an honest oversight important is this: unlike the house organ that is published by the Golden Rain Foundation, the Sun sometimes publishes negative news stories about Leisure World and we print letters to the editor criticizing the Foundation or one of the mutual benefit corporations that make up the community of Leisure World. Mr. Bolton could have simply ignored me.

I don’t know him very well. I cannot say we have a working relationship at all—I believe we’ve spoken three or four times, if that much. But so far, he has behaved graciously and professionally. That’s not true of everyone a reporter encounters. I thought the fact should be acknowledged.

This blog does not mean I’m going to change the way I cover Leisure World. Far from it. I’ll still be the outsider looking in. That’s my job. I only hope I can do it as courteously as Mr. Bolton has done his.

Meanwhile, I’m still trying to reach that former employee.

From time to time, people don’t want to talk to me.

Fair enough. I have neither the power, nor the desire, to force people to speak to me if they don’t want to.

That said, it is my job to gather information and pass it along to readers. Reporters who fail at that task can quickly find themselves looking for other work. So what does a reporter do if sources don’t want to talk to him or her?

Giving up is seldom an option. Editors don’t like that. Giving up is not a good career move. Sometimes limits of time or other resources make it impossible to continue with a research project—but you really don’t want to make a habit of failure.

However, pestering sources can cause the permanent loss of a source who might be reluctant to speak on just one or two occasions. To land one good story at the cost of future stories is not good reporting.

An unwritten rule I personally follow is ask three times. If you get “no” three times in a row, chances are you’ll get “no” 30 times in a row and so you might as well stop. I’ve also found that the more people you can find who are willing to talk to you, the less reluctant other sources are to talk to you.

And there is usually another source of information to talk to if one particular source is unwilling to speak.

Sometimes it is necessary to be blunt. If there’s a legal dispute brewing, some sources may be understandably reluctant to talk for fear of making a bad situation worse. (I’ve been both a plaintiff and a defendant in litigation and I understand that fear.) But those are the times when a reporter absolutely must give all sides an opportunity to speak. In those cases, it is best to let the source know that you are going to file a story whether they speak to you or not.

That’s the truth, by the way. My deadlines don’t change because other people would like them to change.

There’s another reason to be blunt with a source. Some individuals think that if one source doesn’t talk to a reporter, the story will be killed. That is seldom true.

I dislike confrontation. (Odd considering my line of work.) I dislike pushing my weight around. But there are times, especially when dealing with public officials, when a reporter can’t take the first no for an answer.

And media-savvy individuals know an unpleasant truth: “No comment” is, in fact, a comment—an on the record comment.

The sentence was so bad, I remember every syllable about a quarter century later. I don’t remember the name of the young woman who wrote the sentence, but I remember the sentence.

“The church has helped her facilitate with the homeless for years.”

Facilitate means “to make easier.” So the church helped this woman help with the homeless. Help do what? Help the homeless? Help the homeless helpthemselves? How?

I was a student editor at one of my university’s newspapers. The author was a pretty little public relations student. She had submitted a brief, superficial profile of a public relations woman to our newspaper. Never mind the fact that the subject of the profile was of no earthly interest to the readers of our newspaper. I read the submission. We were always looking for volunteers and if the girl wrote well, we could assign her to something our audience would care about.

About two thirds of the way through the profile, the journalism student–yes, public relations is a kind of journalism– informed her readers that the public relations woman in the profile had fed the homeless at her church once a month for the past decade. So far, so good. Then came the clunker:

“The church has helped her facilitate with the homeless for years.”

I asked her what the sentence meant.

“She feeds the homeless at her church.”

Looking back, I wish I’d said something tactful. I was honest instead: “You already said that in the previous sentence. All this sentence does is show you know how to spell ‘facilitate.'”

If you think that was harsh, I’ve got news for you: I’ve been on the receiving end of harsher words and I’ll receive harsh criticisms from time to time until fate or death forces me out of the writing business. Part of being a writer is taking sometimes scathing criticism. The trick is to distinguish between legitimate complaints and illegitmate complaints. The legitmate complaints offer you an opportunity to learn and to grow. The illegitimate compaints need to be ignored.

I give the young woman credit: she took the criticism without flinching, without whining. She behaved like a professional when I behaved like a tyrant. I don’t know if she graduated journalism school or not. I don’t know if she found a career in public relations or not. I know she succeeded at something.

I offered other criticisms of her work. I don’t remember if we published her story or not. I know I never saw her again. Still, her sentence has stayed in my head. Why? It was a classic example of something I see all the time: inexperienced writers trying to impress people with their vocabularies. Not knowing what she wanted to say, the student writer repeated what she had said and added a word that sounded impressive to her. That was a mistake.

Most of the time, the best rule is to keep your words and your sentences simple. A few years ago I edited some copy by a writer for another publication owned by our company. The “author” loved to impress readers with how many fancy words he knew. It sometimes took several minutes for me to understand what he was talking about. I invariably re-wrote his copy and he invariably took offense at what he considered bad editing.

Since then, he has found his writing niche. He writes better opinion pieces than news stories. More importantly, he writes the way he speaks. He tries to impress people with his arguments, not his vocabulary.

Remember the Professor on “Gilligan’s Island?” I recall one episode in which Gilligan said that the Professor was so smart, he didn’t understand what the Professor was saying.

A teacher who can’t communicate with his students is called an incompetent. What good are smart ideas if no one understands them? What good is telling the truth if you speak a different language than your audience does?

Words are useful tools, but you are supposed to use them to build sentences and paragraphs that convey information. You aren’t supposed to use words to show off the fact that you know more words than most people have. Frankly, it is rude as well as ineffective. Odds are, an editor will cut your article–and you–down to size.

You can build a house with saws, wood, hammers and nails. You can’t build a house by randomly pounding nails in random boards and hoping that somehow a building will rise from your efforts. That isn’t construction, that’s disturbing the peace.

The same goes with writing. Keep it simple. You aren’t trying to impress your middle school English teacher here. You want people to attend a fundraiser or you want people to rethink their position on an issue. Get to the point. Choose the simplest words and use the simplest sentences. Most of the time, that approach works best.

So if you submit something to the Sun Newspapers, just tell us what happened or will happen, the time it happened, the day of the week it happened, the date and the location. And include a phone number or e-mail address so we can ask for more information if we need it.

By all means, use a dictionary or a thesaurus while you write. But if you have to stop in the middle of every sentence to look up the word you want to use, there’s a good chance you’re trying to hard. Stop. Take a deep breath. Start over.

Next week, we’ll talk about my adventures with bad press releases.

Inexperienced and poorly trained writers have developed an aversion to the word “said”—as in: “Good morning,” he said.

According to this school of of thought, you can state, claim, note, add, yell, shout, exclaim, bleat, bellow, belch and even yodel—but you must never say anything.

Nonsense, I say. You are allowed to use the word said twice in a lifetime of writing. In fact, you can write that someone said something many times in an article.

The origins of the illiterate myth that you must avoid the word said at all costs—this red flag that tells the reader that a writer is both illiterate and pretentious—appears to have its origins in one of the basic rules of good writing: Don’t be redundant.

It is a good to avoid being redundant. However, that fine rule can be taken to an insane extreme. If you can’t use any word or phrase more than once, you can’t write more than two or three sentences before you run into trouble. Imagine the work it would take if you couldn’t use the words “he,” “she” or “the” more than once. You couldn’t use a source’s first or last name more than once or use a source’s gender or job title more than once.

Unfortunately, bad writers will go to insane lengths to avoid “said.” Here are some tips from a guy who has worked as a professional writer for more than six years.

Wrong: “I respectfully disagree,” he noted.

Don’t write that someone “noted” words unless they sang those words or wrote a note. If I write a profile of a man who answers questions by singing, I’m going to write that he sang the words—and make it clear I’m being literal when I write that fact. If someone responds to a verbal conversation by writing a note, I’m going to share that detail with readers—because it is a mighty strange thing for a man or woman to do during a conversation.

Right: “I like this restaurant,” she said.

Wrong: “I like this restaurant, too,” he added.

Reporters are supposed to interview as many sources as they can before they write a story. However, when you quote source B as adding information to something source A said, you create the impression that you sat at a table with those two people and the three of you had a conversation. “Added” is a lie told by a writer who claims to be purveying the truth because the writer wants to avoid using the word said. That makes the writer both illiterate and dishonest.

I’ll respect the use of the word “added” after a quote the day I accept the word “subtracted” after a quote. Hey, let’s try it and see if it works.

“I like you,” he subtracted.

Nope, “subtracted” doesn’t make sense at the end of a quote—and neither does “added.”

Right: “I am running for mayor,” she said.

Wrong: “I am running for mayor,” she stated.

The word stated implies that there might be a fact that contradicts that statement. It is a subtle way of calling someone a liar. As a rule, this word is used by amateurs who have no intention of accusing someone of being dishonest. Use “said” instead—you’re far less likely to end up on the wrong end of a libel suit. “Stated” is also jargon—it reads and sounds like a word a lawyer would use. Writers are people, they should write and speak as people.

Worse than wrong: “I’m a good person,” she claimed.

I wouldn’t use this word unless someone made an outlandish statement without any evidence to back it up. Even then, I probably wouldn’t use it. The word “claimed” bluntly implies someone is a liar. Sometimes journalists use it when someone makes an outlandish claim, but I won’t. If I have evidence someone is lying, I’m going to talk to my editor and publisher about when and how to use that evidence. I’m not going to use code words and hope the general public speaks mainstream media code.

The word said simply relates a fact: a human being opened his or her mouth and spoke words.

Worse than illiterate: “I’m excited!” he exclaimed.

Yes, I’ve actually seen “writers” combine an exclamation point with the word “exclaimed.” First, that really is redundant. Second, it is an insult to the reader’s intelligence. (The sentence implies the reader is too stupid to recognize a punctuation mark.)

The correct version of the sentence ought to be: “I am excited,” he said.

Or: “I am excited,” he said with a yawn.

I’ll sometimes report that a source “wrote” something rather than “said” something  if I can identify the author of the document. Otherwise, I use the word said. PDF files and printed pages cannot speak, but they can say important things—just ask anyone who has read the Bible or the Torah. Yet documents cannot write. So when quoting a document with a known author, I tell readers that so-and-so wrote the quoted words.

Said. It is a perfectly good word. Please use it as often as you need it when writing. You won’t have to tie yourself in knots trying to find an alternative world. Your reader will know what you are writing about. Your poor abused editor will be grateful for saving him the bother of replacing every “added,” “noted” and “stated” with “said.”

Incidentally, the more work you make an editor do, the less likely you are to get your submission published.

Please say said.

And having said that—I’ll see you next week.

Starting next Friday, I’ll be taking a little vacation time. I need to recharge my batteries so I can get more work done.

I’ll be spending part of my time reading “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. For those of you unfamiliar with this classic textbook, it is a guide to grammar, punctuation and writing.

I’ve read and reread the book since I was 14. I’m 50 and still struggling with the basics after all these years. I’m a professional and have been one for awhile now. In fact, I reread the book once every couple of years. It isn’t enough to learn new skills in this business—journalists have to constantly re-master the basics.

The bad news: if you are struggling with sentences, you’ll struggle with them until you die. (Written English is a tough language to master because it is in some ways quite irrational. That makes it flexible—but also maddening to work with.)

The good news: “The Elements of Style” is easier to read and understand than any of the English textbooks I used when I was growing up. So if any of you are struggling, I heartily recommend the book.

Always a pleasure,
Charles

Sun Editor Dennis Kaiser took his first real vacation in about 20 years starting on Thursday, Aug. 11. He’ll be back Monday, Aug. 22.

I missed him. Between the two we report, write, photograph and edit newspapers that cover Avalon, Paramount, Belmont Shore, Seal Beach, Seal Beach Leisure World, Rossmoor, Los Alamitos, Sunset Beach and Huntington Harbor. Covering that same territory alone was a scary prospect.

We’ve been a working team for six years now. We went to journalism school together and have been a working team off and on since January 1986. I’ve always had someone to advise me, someone with 30 years of journalism experience to turn to when I had doubts about my decisions.

Did I mention that I missed him? Well, I did. I wouldn’t have missed the experience for anything, but I missed him.

Please, don’t tell him I missed him. I’m not a sentimental man and I hate to give up my hard-hearted image. (Well, delusion.)

I was worried at first that I couldn’t pull it off. I shouldn’t have worried. Dennis set me up to succeed—a benefit of working with a professional. By the end of this day, I will have completed my work for the week and started on next week’s newspapers.

That said, I’m a little disappointed. I ran short of space in the Sun and was forced to hold a crime story that I felt was important. However, the update on the Sunset Beach annexation issue and the burglary of Rossmoor’s Quinonez family would be important to a greater number of readers. The readers count, I don’t.

I didn’t have room for multiple City Council stories and had to limit myself to one. There came a point Monday night when I had more stories to tell from various contributors than I had space. Something had to give. I asked myself the question: what would readers care about the most?

That’s a tough question to answer, because different readers want different things. The audience that turns to the business page is different from the audience that turns to the sports and opinion pages.

I’ll leave it to others to decide if I did the job well. I have deadlines to meet.

But before I get back to work, I’d like to thank the production staff, the sales staff, Publisher Vince Bodiford , and all our contributing writers and photographers—and, of course, Editor Dennis Kaiser. All of them helped me do my job during a week when editorial staff was temporarily down by 50 percent, during a week that included a laptop malfunction and a lengthy blackout.

Man, I really missed Dennis at times.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another deadline to meet.

Always a pleasure,
Charles

By Charles M. Kelly
Once you start talking to a reporter who has identified himself as a reporter, you’re on the record.

You have to say “off the record” first or anything you say can and will be considered on the record.

Journalists can’t allow people to pull things off the record retroactively.

Let me explain the need for this rule by telling you about one of my early failures as a journalist and a man. This is the first time I’ve ever told anyone about it.

It was the night of Associated Student Body elections—as meaningless a “political” contest as you’re likely to encounter. The editors sent out a small army of reporters of the Daily Forty-Niner to cover the night’s developments.

I went to the University Student Union and spoke to one of the poll workers. I asked him if there had been any incidents of rules being violated. I can barely recall what he looked like. He was white, I remember that.

He said black candidates had been tearing down signs for white candidates. Then he said the white candidates had been tearing down the signs for black candidates.

Then he scowled and said something like: “What I just told you about the white candidates is off the record. I’m in public relations and I know it isn’t ethical for you to use off the record, so you can’t repeat what I said about the white candidates.” His words came like a flood, as though he was to give me time to speak.

Just so we’re clear: when a source says “off the record” first, it means I am obligated to act as though the source never spoke at all. I am not allowed to use the off the record source’s information. If another source gives me the same information on the record, I’m allowed to use that information from that source.

In this case, the poll worker was really saying: you must tell people that black candidates are breaking the rules, but you must not say white candidates are also breaking the rules. In other words: he decreed that I had an ethical obligation to tell the entire university the lie that he wished he had told me. He was typical of the liars I would encounter in future years. I’ve met only a few, but they consistently follow a similar pattern of behavior.

This particular liar and I glared at one another for several seconds. This was my first semester on the school newspaper. I didn’t know what the rules for “off the record” were, having heard the term only once before—on an episode of “Lou Grant.” I was entirely on my own. I didn’t know what to do.

I knew he wasn’t trying to influence the outcome of the election—the paper would hit campus newsracks hours after the ballots were counted. There was no logical purpose to his actions.

I closed my notebook and walked away. I scratched out every word he said and told myself not to use any of it. At the time I thought I’d done a good thing—I had not allowed this guy to bully me into lying to my readers. (By the way, I never heard anyone else accuse either black or white student candidates of pulling down signs. Neither did any of the other Forty-Niner reporters.)

As the weeks and months passed, I realized I’d done a substandard job. I could have talked to my editors. I could have talked to the man who taught the journalism ethics class when I was at Cal State Long Beach. The late Dr. Benjamin Cunningham of Seal Beach would have told me what every professional journalist already knew: The source has to say “off the record” first or every syllable is on the record and fair game for quoting.

From there, I could have put together a story about a poll worker who counted on the ignorance of a fellow college kid to help him misrepresent the behavior of candidates for student government office—based on their race and to no rational purpose.

You might ask: What would be the point of exposing him? That’s a good question. Guys like that don’t change. They can’t and they wouldn’t if they could.

I still should have exposed him. I might have given fair warning to potential victims in his classes. If he went into a line of work where he could abuse people on the basis of race, my article would have started a trail of evidence for future victims to use to fight him.

I didn’t expose the poll worker. I failed as journalist. Call it a sin of omission if you like, but it remains a sin all the same.

However, I see no need to repeat it. So I’m telling you flat out what any reporter will tell you:

Once you start talking to a reporter who has identified himself as a reporter, you’re on the record.

You have to say “off the record” first or anything you say can and will be considered on the record.

If you tell me something and then say, “Oh, wait, that’s off the record,” I will immediately doubt your honesty and question your motives.

Don’t switch back and forth between on and off the record. I’ll get confused and use information I shouldn’t have. You’ll feel betrayed and I’ll feel like I’ve been set up to fail. We’ll both lose.

We humans have the right to speak and we have the right to remain silent. If you choose to exercise your right to speak, so may I. Clear?

homeless-streets

By Charles M. Kelly

One of journalism’s most destructive myths hold that there are two sides—and only two—to every story. Life is more complex than a football game—and a rougher contact sport, too.

Take the “homeless.” Recently, while covering the question of whether there needs to be a homeless shelter in Seal Beach, I’ve run across two very different views of the homeless.

They are victims or they are bums.

You know, I can understand these two views because each represents a fragment of the truth. Trouble is, they are only fragments. I know this, because I have known five people who experienced being homeless. Four of them fought their way back. It was a hard road.

One was my father, who voluntarily joined the ranks of the homeless during the Great Depression. (Considering the state of the economy, I should have listened more closely to his survival stories.) He lit out from home at 16. His father was the kind of man who would steal from his own son, so perhaps my father’s decision to go—go anywhere—was a wise one.

My father was luckier than many teens that ran off for … whatever reason. Some of the kids who flee to the streets are fugitives from physically or sexually abusive homes. Now, I suppose you could argue that those kids “chose” to be homeless … but I can’t bring myself to judge young people who have to choose between being raped (by someone who has access to them 24 hours a day, 365 days a year) and the harsh realities of life on the street.

I met another homelessness survivor when I was in college. Another survivor I knew got a job as a furniture repossessor. I’m guessing he lied about his homeless status, as most employers would have considered that an undesireable quality in an employee. Steve, that was his name, presumably saved up his money until he had first and last month’s rent and made his way back to the middle class. I don’t know how Steve became homeless. I only remember something he wrote in our college paper: that the hardest thing he ever did was the first time he ate a hamburger that he’d pulled from a dumpster. I don’t know if I could have done that. He did—and survived to escape the gutter because he could endure it.

Another survivor I know put up with the drawbacks of Salvation Army housing while she looked for a job and a home for her two children. Her ex-husband was the classic deadbeat dad. He kept a roof over his head and indulged his own needs. His wife and kids had to fend for themselves—and escaped the sidewalks only because the Salvation Army was there to lend a hand. This woman now lives in Orange County and as far as I know is employed. Does it make me a bad person to hope her ex gets hit by a large truck?

I nearly ended up in the street myself, once. I could have avoided long-lasting financial woes if I’d followed the advice I’m going to give you: never take your credit card to Las Vegas the week before your biopsy. If the cancer doesn’t kill you, the credit card debt just might. Had I ended up in the street, I would have been someone who volunteered to be stupid. I expect many a fool has ended up in a homeless shelter. My advice to those guys: get smart, get tough—and do it fast.

There are many roads to the street. Some will get there by foolish financial decisions and drag their spouses and children with them. Others will simply cast off the shackles of normal, middle-class life and the struggle to make money to buy things you can’t take with you when you die. Some will drink booze or abuse other drugs until all they can focus on is getting their next substance-induced stupor.

I wish people who support or oppose homeless shelters would take a moment to realize that thinking of the “homeless” as a single mass will not rescue anyone from anything. That’s collectivist thinking. They are individuals. And I have no earthly idea how to help the ones that can be helped. I’m afraid a good deal of the heavy lifting belongs to them.

This is a story with thousands of sides—maybe millions, considering the size of the United States. It’s far too big a story for one small-time journalist to tell. But I’ll try to keep tabs on what happens here in my home town—and hope I never run out of money to pay my mortgage.